Ballard: explorer of catastrophe

The author of Empire of the Sun and Crash was no dystopian prophet; he used disaster to reimagine the world.

James Heartfield

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The Steven Spielberg film, Empire of the Sun, was the highpoint of fame for James Graham Ballard, who died yesterday aged 78. Released in 1987, the film takes him back to the point where it all began for him, the Japanese occupation of Shanghai and his own childhood detention in a prisoner of war camp, with the fictionalised Ballard played by a young Christian Bale.

The film was good, but the novel was uncanny for its dispassionate setting out of a world turned upside down. In the opening scene, Ballard describes the fictional Jim walking across a large garden towards his own house, through its entire contents, which are laid out before him. The overriding horror of the English settlers at their defeat at non-white hands is described, but from the outside, in scenes that leave you to read the emotion, as the young hero never really sympathises with their outrage. The shocking point in the novel is where Jim comes to identify with the Japanese guards’ brutal rule and loathe his fellow prisoners.

Good as it is, Empire of the Sun is not typical of Ballard’s work. For many years, Ballard laboured under the damning label of ‘science fiction writer’, long before Iain M Banks and Will Self wrote fantasy novels that were respectably literary. Ballard was next to Alfred Bester and Ray Bradbury on the geeks shelf at the back of the bookshop. To most people, science fiction meant cowboys and Indians, only with fishbowl helmets and rocket ships. But Ballard, who had started to read American science fiction magazines when he was in the Royal Air Force in Canada, reacted against the cheesy themes to help launch a New Wave of the genre, alongside Philip K Dick, Larry Niven and Roger Zelazny. The magazine New Worlds, later edited by Michael Moorcock, published his first stories in the 1950s.

Ballard’s fiction needed no Venusians; instead it changed the world in the imagination. Ballard was like a scientist, holding all the variables constant, but changing just one to brilliant effect. It was his second novel, The Drowned World (1962), that set the tone: in this work, solar radiation melted the ice caps, so raising the sea level by a few hundred feet, and Ballard imagined what would happen as a result. What today is the compelling myth of the campaign against climate change was all guessed before by Ballard – not to address the climate, but to imagine the psychological recovery of primitive man in a modern setting. Already in The Wind from Nowhere (1961), Ballard had pictured a world beset by natural disaster, in that case unremitting hurricanes.

Naturally, today’s writers think Ballard was the visionary of environmental collapse, though it would be just as true to say that he was acting out the trauma of his childhood experience of the eclipse of the white race, or dealing with the threat of nuclear war (which hung over us throughout much of his writing career). Those who are excited by the ‘tipping point’ forget that we had ‘chaos theory’ in the 1980s and ‘catastrophe theory’ in the 1970s. Still, any of those explanations reduces Ballard to the status of reporter or prophet, when the marked thing about his work was what he added, not what he passed on: the imaginative reinvention of the world.

Science fiction gave him the license to turn things inside out, but he was inspired as much by surrealism. In those days, surrealism was an underground movement, not the mainstay of the National Curriculum that it is today, and you were not allowed to watch Luis Buñuel’s films in Britain. The beat writer, William Burroughs, and his hallucinatory vision of the Cold War, Naked Lunch, helped Ballard to see things differently. There is an affinity, too, with John Wyndham’s novels, like The Day of the Triffids, and Nigel Dennis’ Cards of Identity.

Moving from Canada to Shepperton in west London, Ballard lost his wife to pneumonia, and from then on raised his three children alone. It was a change that pushed him to work harder. He had been working on a scientific journal, Chemistry and Industry. At Shepperton, Ballard was in the middle of Britain’s film and television industry, where illusions were made. He was very taken with Pop Art, which he first encountered at Richard Hamilton’s ‘This is Tomorrow’ exhibition in 1956.

In the fictionalised autobiography The Kindness of Women, he tells of a Sixties ‘Art Laboratory’ and the situationist experiments of psychologist Dick Sutherland (probably drawn from his friend Christopher Evans) all leading up to the events that he fictionalised in 1969 as The Atrocity Exhibition. In that collection, Ballard’s surrealistic reinterpretation of the glamour and violence of the times can be read in chapters like ‘Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan’ and ‘The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race’ (suggested by Dada-hero Alfred Jarry’s ‘The Crucifixion Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race’).

The Atrocity Exhibition features a chapter, ‘Crash’, which in 1973 he expanded into the novel of the same name. It scandalised Britain when David Cronenberg filmed it in 1996 (and Westminster Council banned it). Crash is about Vaughan, who eroticises car crashes, and Elizabeth Taylor. Ballard holds the reader in suspense between revulsion and arousal by mixing his images, describing in close detail a lung punctured by door handles, a white blouse irrigated with blood. The Normal wrote a song about it, Warm Leatherette, which was even better when Grace Jones sang it.

By the 1980s, Ballard had broken through the snobbish opposition to science fiction and inspired writers who were in a similar vein though escaping the label. His dystopias are often seen as an endorsement of contemporary fears – like the consumerist authoritarianism that descends in Kingdom Come (2008). But he could still unsettle even the jaded bourgeoisie, as his tale of middle-class revolt (dismissed as unbelievable by Adam Mars Jones in the Observer) Millennium People showed in 2003.

It would be truer to say that Ballard investigated the idea of catastrophe – and the disorder that followed opened up all possibilities. His political views were a little more restrained than his artistic ones. He declined to sign a petition for ‘No More Hiroshimas’ in 1995, saying that he thought the atomic bomb had saved a great many lives in the Pacific (not adding, but perhaps meaning, his own). But he was always interested in original ideas and it was a great thrill for me when he wrote a letter complimenting spiked’s predecessor, LM, which was edited by Mick Hume and which Ballard described as ‘the most interesting and provocative magazine I have read for many years’. ‘Michael Fitzpatrick is excellent. Ditto James Heartfield’, he wrote.

James Heartfield is a director of the development think-tank Audacity.org. Visit his website here.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill talked to JG Ballard in 2001 about the General Election. Neil Davenport showed how writers like Ballard looked down on aspiration. Daniel Ben-Ami noted a modern, anti-consumerist trend. and suggested we teach science for its own sake. Or read more at spiked issues Obituaries.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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